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Curt Onalfo’s gamble paid off

The Galaxy head coach put it all on the line and was rewarded

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“The ballsy-est sub I’ve seen in MLS history”

That was senior writer Matt Doyle on ExtraTime Radio, describing Curt Onalfo’s controversial decision to replace captain Jelle Van Damme with David Romney in just the 33rd minute of Saturday’s wild 2-2 draw vs. the Chicago Fire.

At the time, it appeared to be a shocking substitution that left many in the press box unable to process the scene. It was also the correct call: What could have been a fatal decision for the Galaxy head coach turned out to be a stroke of genius.

So was the sub a tactical decision or a disciplinary one? Both.

“I expect our players to be right from minute one”, Onalfo said matter-of-factly during the post-game press conference. “I’m the leader of the team and if guys aren’t…I’m the leader of the team and I have to make substitutions to get our group where it needs to be. I brought in Romney and he did a solid job and we didn’t concede anymore and it ended up creating a lot of chances.”

Jelle Van Damme is the undisputed leader of the Galaxy back line, but there have been times this season when the big Belgian has looked the part of a tamed beast.

And Van Damme was poor on Saturday. In just the 13th minute a reckless tackle inside the six-yard box gifted Nemanja Nikolic a penalty kick, then three minutes later the captain turned the ball over while out of position, the Fire counter-attacked with ruthless efficiency and all of a sudden its 2-0.

The body language of the players said it all: Van Damme covered his face with his hands in disgust while Daniel Steres swung a fist and gestured angrily at his partner.

However, as bad as Van Damme was playing, you don’t make that kind of sub unless you’re trying to send a message. Did it work? I think so, for two reasons:

The obvious reason is the sub worked. Frank Klopas noted on the Chicago broadcast that Van Damme likes to roam, and can get caught out of position when making aggressive challenges and pushing forward in the attack. The Fire were all too happy to take advantage, with David Accam in particular running circles around the team. Inserting Dave Romney solidified the defense and allowed LA to press for goals in the second half. When coupled with the Jermaine Jones injury and Onalfo’s decision to flip Giovani dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes, the Galaxy were able to simplify their play and looked decidedly more dangerous.

The less obvious but equally important reason the gamble worked is because Van Damme accepted responsibility for his play. The captain may not have appeared on the bench in the second half, but credit must go to the Belgian for putting the team first and refusing to sulk in the face of adversity.

When Onalfo declared “We became a team tonight”, I believe he was talking about the squad including Van Damme. The Galaxy were a galvanized squad in the second half, and I don’t think that happens if the captain isn’t fully bought in.

This is the Instagram post of a man who is bought in.

Read between the lines, (The latest Corner of the Galaxy podcast does an excellent job of this, with the title “LA Galaxy Post-Game Comments Paint Positive Picture”) and you might feel more optimistic about what a few days ago felt like a simmering locker room drama.

For the record: I expect Van Damme to recover and put in a fantastic performance vs. the Red Bulls.